Just Like Heaven (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Just Like Heaven, director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) wants to have his cake and eat it to. That's not necessarily a bad thing, until you consider that the recipe used for this confection is missing a few ingredients and the final product is half-baked. And, rather than eating it, he kind of chokes on it. Just Like Heaven tries to be an unholy union of Ghost and All of Me, and the result is rarely humorous, rarely romantic, and rarely affecting. Plus, the suspension of disbelief curve is so steep that even Lance Armstrong wouldn't be able to make it to the top.

Just Like Heaven is supposed to be a ghost story, but not of the kind that are popular with horror audiences. Elizabeth Martinson (Reese Witherspoon) is a hard-working doctor who puts in 26-hour days while subsisting primarily on coffee. One rainy night, on the way home from the hospital, her car has a head-on encounter with a truck. When next we meet Elizabeth, she's a spirit haunting her old apartment, which is now occupied by David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo), a morose man who always has a beer in one hand. Eventually, David comes to realize that Elizabeth is a ghost, and Elizabeth acknowledges that she might no longer be amongst the living. The two team up to discover: (1) what happened to Elizabeth, and (2) why David is the only one who can see her.

The movie starts cheating the audience early, and never lets up. It finds a contrived way to get around the problem of a romance between a human and a spirit, then keeps the cheap twists coming. There's no internal logic. Elizabeth can't touch a telephone, but when she lies on a bed, her head makes an indentation in a pillow. The ghostly rules in this movie are changed and warped as it suits the filmmakers. When revealed, the explanation of why David can see Elizabeth makes no sense. And the final scene is the ultimate insult. In order for this film to work, you have to be willing to swallow crater-sized plot holes

There are a few nice individual scenes, but most of what Just Like Heaven has to offer is pure pabulum. On those occasions when it goes for comedy, the scenes are strident and overdone. Donal Logue has a small part as David's best friend - he's on hand mainly for "humorous" one-liners. Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder plays a stoned-out mystic. I think we're expected to laugh at this character because he's played by Jon Heder. Nothing he says or does is amusing in its own right.

It's as if Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo ignored the stupidity of the screenplay and did their best to convince us that they're two people falling in love. The illusion sometimes works - usually when it's just the two of them, sharing a quiet moment. Based on past experience, we know that Witherspoon can do this kind of movie. And, adding this to 13 Going on 30, we can assume that Ruffalo understands what's needed to be a lead in a romantic comedy.

Movies about supernatural relationships can be fertile ground for rich, involving motion pictures. Perhaps it’s the shallowness of Just Like Heaven's approach that I find disappointing. Instead of playing off the strengths of the premise, the filmmaking team turns those strengths into weaknesses and eviscerates the underlying idea. In appealing to the heart, Just Like Heaven forgets that viewers also have minds.

Just Like Heaven (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1